The truth is, there’s a stark difference in the way you'd talk to a pre-teen, as compared to an infant and toddler. This is because you can no longer make your child do something simply because “you say so”.
To establish your presence in their lives, you’ll need to embrace their emotions, growing curiosity and different personalities. Here’s how to bridge that gap.
1. Make eye contact
Bend down to your child’s eye level and ensure you are looking at each other. By doing so, you not only make your child feel you’re taking him seriously, “but are also ensuring he's focused and paying attention”, explains clinical psychologist Dr Hana Ra Adams*. However, make sure you don’t stare him down, as it might come across as controlling rather than connecting.
Tell him exactly what to do... The clearer the message, the easier it is for your child to process and remember these instructions.
2. Be specific
Remember that what may seem obvious to you, might not be obvious to your child. So, you need to be clear and very specific in what you want from him. “Instead of asking your child to ‘go get ready for school’, tell him exactly what to do — like brush his teeth then shower and put on his uniform,” Dr Adams advises. The clearer the message, the easier it is for your child to process and remember these instructions.
Just as there are days you don’t feel productive at work, your child may have times when he is slow to react, or makes mistakes or is unwilling to play the piano or do his homework. Sometimes, he just needs a sign of reassurance from you that “off” days are acceptable, so he’ll feel comfortable knowing that you understand him. Try saying something like, “I know you’re feeling tired of all this maths, but finish this exercise, and let’s go for a walk after?”
4. Ask questions
Dr Adams points out that the biggest reason that kids distance themselves from parents is because they feel parents aren’t listening. “As parents we feel we know our children and how the world works. Sometimes we forget to listen to them and really hear what they have to say and how they feel about something.” Show your interest in his life by asking questions regarding his likes and dislikes, whom he hangs out with, and what brightens his mood ― and make it a point to remember the info. “The more your child feels you know their inner world, the easier it will be for him to open up to you,” Dr Adams says.
5. Think out loud
When he asks for something, pause and think about what your child has said, then explain to him how you arrived at your final decision. It doesn’t really matter if your response ultimately is a “yes” or “no” as you’ve shown him how you solved an issue, which will arm him with skills to tackle future problems by himself. For instance, when you tell him, “I understand this is your favourite cartoon, and I would let you stay up if you didn’t have CCA tomorrow. But you need the energy to play, and less sleep will hinder that. So, I believe you need a good night’s rest.”
6. Repetition is key
This one’s for both you and your child. When you restate what your child has just said, it’ll assure him that you’ve been listening and giving his words importance. A statement like, “So, you’d like to go cycling instead of the park, right?” shows you’ve taken note of what he’s just said. Conversely, asking him to repeat your instructions will show you if he was paying attention. If he’s unable to repeat your message, it could have been either too long or complicated for him to understand.
7. See it from his viewpoint
Kids find it hard to express themselves when they’re overcome by emotions or feel defensive, as it usually means they’re going to be scolded. If you feel he’s struggling with how he feels, Dr Adams advises, “Name some emotions they might be feeling to help them unravel what’s keeping them from talking.” She explains that many kids want to be heard, so try to listen to them, no matter how mundane or trivial their concern may sound. “When you show them the patience to listen, it’s easier for them to open up.”
When you talk about your feelings, you automatically seem more approachable to your kid as you’re showing him that you have problems ― just like him.
8. Open up
When you talk about your feelings, you automatically seem more approachable to your kid as you’re showing him that you have problems ― just like him. Saying, “I've had a really hard day in the office because there was so much work,” allows him to relate with you and invites him to communicate his own feelings. You can then help “model” how to respond to that by discussing with him what you can do to feel better (say, walk it off, or dance in front of the TV) and do it together.
9. Mind your words
If your child starts acting out, avoid statements like “You’re so rude” or “You’re a bad boy for hitting your sister”. Such loaded statements are direct shots at his character, which can make him feel defensive and shut you out. To separate his actions from his character, use phrases like, “Your behaviour was rude” or “Hitting your sister was a bad thing to do”.
10. Watch how you deliver the message
As parents, you know everything or so it seems, to your child. Things like when your child is hungry, when he’s sleepy — but that doesn’t mean you should speak to him that way. Nothing’s worse than having a someone talk at you and not to you and that’s how your child will feel, too. Make them feel more in control of his life by saying, “Would you rather shower in five or 10 minutes?” as opposed to “Go shower now.”
Dr Hana Ra Adams, PsyD, MA, LMFT, is a licenced marriage and family therapist and school counsellor at the German European School Singapore.
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